Kristin Palitza
Kristin Palitza

Hidden from sight

Have you ever asked yourself where South Africa’s disabled are? According to the Casual Day Welfare Organisation, 3,5-million people in South Africa are disabled. That’s almost 8% of our total population. But where are they? Apart from the odd person in a wheelchair or on crutches, our streets seem to be surprisingly empty of anyone with bodily or mental impairments.

After a recent illness, my friend’s five-year-old daughter is bound to a wheelchair. Since then, she has been trying to find her a friend in a similar situation, simply to show her that she is not the only child unable to walk, run and jump. But her efforts have so far been futile. Not even her daughter’s physiotherapist has been able to help. We’ve asked around in our circles of friends — nobody seems to know disabled children.

Yet, we know that they must be out there (and adults, too). Three-and-a-half million is not a small number. The sad reality is that many physically and mentally disabled are hidden from sight, in institutions — “special” homes, “special” schools, “special” workplaces. These are special only in the sense that they are exclusively for those who are different; who don’t fit into a society that is only interested in those who deliver, fast and efficiently, who fit the norm, who don’t need any extra care, support and attention.

We are a society characterised by social exclusion, discrimination, negative attitudes and marginalisation when it comes to the disabled. Although our Constitution protects their rights (in theory), day-to-day practice looks unfortunately different. We don’t have the time (or money) for those who don’t fit in. Instead of integration, we practise separation. The disabled hardly feature in our able-bodied lives.

We don’t see disabled people on our beaches, in our parks or restaurants. Most public spaces don’t have disabled facilities (ramps, toilets and so forth) and are extremely difficult to be accessed without help — even though owners of public places are by law required to provide such amenities. But without much enforcement, many venues just don’t comply.

There’s a barrage of obstacles. Navigating a South African city using public transport is extremely difficult if you sit in a wheelchair — and only a small minority has the financial means to have their car, if they own one that is, adjusted to their requirements. Many simply have to stay at home, unable to participate in public life, hidden away, being degraded to second-class citizens.

There are huge barriers to interaction. Not even 0,3% of disabled South Africans are formally employed and are thus prevented from contributing to society — even though many would be able to. I often hear the argument that it would be too expensive to achieve integration because of all the special requirements, and certainly there is extra cost involved in making spaces disabled-friendly. But is this a good enough reason basically to prevent 8% of our population from participating fully in society and to restrict them to specified areas, even though the Constitution demands us not to? Surely not.

Integration is possible, and there are a few examples of how to do it right. My sister-in-law, for instance, runs a Montessori school in which some of the learners have Down’s syndrome. They are not taught separately but participate together with all the other kids in the classroom — with a little extra attention and support. To give another example, an acquaintance of mine is bound to a wheelchair since a sport accident a few years ago and his employer has gone to great lengths to make it possible for him to continue working (this starts with very basic things, such as installing a wheelchair-accessible toilet). But those are exceptions rather than the rule.

Perhaps it would help if we had persons with disabilities in prominent positions — in politics, entertainment, fashion or top business — and thus create awareness that the disabled are indeed fully fledged citizens with the same rights and often the same skills than able-bodied persons. But, apart from a few exceptions, we don’t. I wish I had a clear explanation for this, but it is probably a regrettable mixture of less access to good education, from primary-school level to university, fewer career opportunities, an unsupportive social and health system and negative attitudes. And all this needs to change.